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Then and now: Colorado activists discuss Juneteenth and Black Lives Matter movement

Images from Denver's George Floyd protests Thursday night
Posted at 11:42 AM, Jun 19, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-19 20:05:47-04

DENVER — This year, Juneteenth falls at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement is weaving its way into every corner of America, including here in Colorado.

Juneteenth is a holiday that commemorates the day the last group of enslaved Black people in America learned they were free. The slaves lived in Galveston, Texas and finally heard about their freedom on June 19, 1865 — two and half years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

In the Black community, Juneteenth is a day of celebration, but it’s also used as a time to reflect on years of injustices, including that two-and-a-half-year delay in freedom.

“To me, Juneteenth means freedom. We've been going through this for 400 years. George Floyd's death sparked something, though,” said activist Samuel Elfay.

Elfay is one of many young activists in Denver who began pushing for an end to systemic racism following the death of George Floyd, a Black Minneapolis man who died shortly after a police officer knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.

Denver7 talked to Elfay, and six other young activists about the movement and how it compares to the those of the past.

“I think they (our ancestors) did what they could with the circumstances that they had and the resources and ability. Black people were in fear, and we weren’t allowed to fight and if we did we were killed,” said activist Ariyaun Mason.

Mason said freedom fighters of the past paved the way for activists like herself.

“Right now what we’re doing, we would not be able to do if it wasn’t for Dr. Martin Luther King,” said activist Elijah Beauford.

Former New Hope Baptist Church Reverend Dr. James Peters worked side-by-side with Dr. King during the Civil Rights Movement.

“Martin was of course the leader and there was no doubt who was in charge,” said Peters.

But Peters said much like the young leaders of today, Dr. King was criticized for his tactics.

“They criticized him when he used children — school children — in the demonstrations in Birmingham,” said Peters. "Martin said ‘Your children will get lessons today far more important than the problems of American democracy that will last them for their life.'"

Peters, who is now 87 years old, said seeing young people still at the helm of the fight for freedom energizes him.

“I’m excited, I’m excited. ... What I think is different now from the other marches ... this one has caught on all across the country. People see the picture of that man dying with a (knee) on his neck and they’re appalled,” said Peters.

George Floyd's final moments were captured on social media for the world to see.

Dr. Vern L. Howard, the chairman of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Colorado Holiday Commission, said social media is fueling this movement.

“People are literally filming and watching what's going on in real time, whereas yesteryear, that wasn't the case,” said Howard.

Social media is also where young activists said they empower each other to discuss reform and changes to systems like policing.

“Even if we lock up the cops who have killed people it still doesn’t fix the system. So I feel like we need to completely create a new system. I think they should be required to take psychology classes and sociology classes and learn about people. Learn about biases they have and conditioned responses to people of color,” said activist Lexie Allen.

Allen and fellow activist Ahshaye Shaw said the unity among people of all races and backgrounds supporting Black Lives Matter makes this moment in time feel powerful, especially this year on Juneteenth.

“Normally Juneteenth is where we all come together as community where we feel free and that’s what we’re supposed to do but this year, I feel like it's not the same because we’re not free, we’ve never been free. That was all an illusion,” said Shaw.

But Shaw, other young activists, and more seasoned freedom fighters told Denver7 they plan to keep fighting for freedom and equality.

“We are having a revolution during time of Juneteenth, and we can't think of better time for revolution,” said Howard.

This story runs at 6 p.m. Friday on Denver7.